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My Century And My Many Lives, by Frank Munk
Memoirs, 1993
Postscript, 1994

Frank Munk, my grandfather, wrote this autobiography to record his memories from 1901 onwards. This history and its postscript are available on our family website in his memory as they tell a complete story of the 20th century. These memoirs may be referenced as long as proper attribution is made; our family retains ownership and copyright. We have one request: if you reference this material in any way, please send us email at and a copy of the paper, if possible, as we would like to know when this material is of interest and we are curious as to how it is being used. We'd like to hear from you.
© Copyright 1993, 1994, The Munk/Ragen Families


One of my earliest memories is my father saying: "It is unfortunate to be born a Jew -- it means you have to be twice as good and work twice as hard to make good." It never occurred to me either to doubt it or to be particularly upset about it, I accepted it as a simple fact of life.

However, to many Jews we were not Jewish enough. We never observed religious dietary laws, our food was identical to that of our neighbors. We never wore different clothing. We did not know or speak Yiddish. As a matter of fact I never knew such people existed until I was fifteen or sixteen, when Russian armies invaded Galicia, the easternmost province of Austria, and tens of thousands of orthodox Jews were forcefully evacuated to the West. My mother volunteered to organize their resettlement in the Kutná Hora district and spent innumerable hours in a horse-drawn carriage to find room for them in the villages. They seemed like a very strange crowd to the local Jews.

We regarded ourselves as modern, emancipated and "cultured" Jews in contrast to those Jews in black caftans, with hair locks who spoke guttural Yiddish. I am sure we were wrong in our feelings, but that was the prevailing attitude. They all were repatriated at the end of WWI to their "statls" in what had by then become the new Poland.

Jews had of course lived in Bohemia for almost a thousand years. Suffice it to say that by the time I was growing up the Jewish community was roughly divided along linguistic lines: Czech Jews and German Jews. Those living in Czech-speaking districts spoke Czech, those in German speaking districts (mostly the so-called Sudetens along the borders of Germany) spoke German. But that was not the only difference: German Jews felt anti-Semitism more acutely and began reverting to Zionism early in the thirties. Czech Jews regarded themselves as "Czechs of the Jewish faith" and were increasingly regarded as such by others.

Prague was an exception to the general rule. Many Prague Jews spoke German as their vernacular, even though they had to speak Czech in everyday life. The Prague Jewish community produced many outstanding personalities, for a time Einstein taught at the German university, others were well-known writers like Max Brod or Franz Kafka. Just as the Germans were a minority among the Czechs, the German speaking Jews were a minority among the Germans. Anti-semitism was ripe. This sense of isolation was one thing that made Kafka a by-word. I never liked him but I must admit that he was an early prophet of the Age of the Absurd. Nowadays, when you say Prague you think of Kafka, although he was absolutely unrepresentative of Bohemia when he and I were living there. He knew Czech very well, but he wrote in German.

In fact, the whole world has become increasingly Kafkaesque ever since. Our attitude towards Judaism was only a reflection of our Weltanschauung. We believed uncritically in progress, rationality, the unity of mankind, free will and self-determination and we were opposed to irrationality, whether secular or religious. Later on I plan to describe how these beliefs affected my life and work, but let me say right now that I never doubted that humanity was moving towards peace, understanding, and clarity. In other words, light will triumph over darkness. Little did I anticipate that my lifetime would encompass much of the opposite trend. Anyway, my generation was probably the last one to inherently believe in enlightenment.

Perhaps I ought to say a little more about the Jewish side of our family. We went to the local synagogue twice or three times a year, mostly for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We did not celebrate the other holidays. I learned to read Hebrew for my Bar Mitzvah, which I remember best for the presents I received, including a large and still excellent world atlas.

In spite of our laxity in matters of religion, my father served for years as treasurer of the local Jewish community. In Austria, Roman Catholicism was the state religion and was financed by the state. Other religions were by then free to operate, but had to support themselves by taxing their members. My father had the power to assess and collect the taxes the community decided upon. I do not know how popular he was in this duty, but I newer heard a word of criticism. Anyway, in addition to being a merchant, he was a tax collector.

As soon as the Czechoslovak republic was created, there was a definite flight from organized religion throughout the country. It was particularly pronounced among the Catholics, since the church was unpopular because of its support for the Habsburg Monarchy. As a result, both my girlfriend Nadia and I left our respective denominations early in the twenties, she having been born a Catholic.


The books listed below provide additional background on this period of history to help illustrate this portion of my grandfather's memoirs.


Languages of Community: The Jewish Experience in the Czech Lands; Hillel J. Kieval



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